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We expect things to be different after marriage, and one of the more difficult changes is in our friendships. Often, while we share similar stages of life with our friends, your marital relationship should be the primary relationship. It’s pretty likely that you and your spouse want what is in the best interest of your marriage. 

Many couples bring a variety of things into the relationship—including that comfy couch from your bachelor pad or that well-worn t-shirt or sweatshirt, mismatched plates, cookware, and friends of the opposite sex. While it may be easy for you all to decide what old items to discard, it becomes much more difficult to have the conversation with your spouse about ending and/or adapting long-standing or even newly-established opposite-sex relationships. These innocent friendships often create a rift between spouses, especially when our spouse sees the relationship as no big deal but there is something in your gut that makes you super uncomfortable.

If you find that you and your spouse are having more and more unresolved discussions about these “friendships,” you may be in the “Danger Zone.” In the Danger Zone, you and your spouse may find yourself: 

  • Emotionally disconnected from each other
  • Not communicating well
  • Having unresolved conflicts
  • Decreasing in physical intimacy

If you see, DANGER, DANGER, DANGER, take heed. Dr. Shirley Glass, licensed marriage and family therapist, has found that “82% of the unfaithful partners I’ve treated have had an affair with someone who was, at first, ‘just a friend.’ The new infidelity is between people who unwittingly form deep, passionate connections before realizing that they’ve crossed the line from platonic friendship into romantic love.”

How should I begin this conversation with my spouse? 

Ask Questions

Internal Questions:

  • Look at the person in the mirror.
  • What really is bothering me? Do I feel ignored? Insecure? Disrespected? Jealous?
  • Am I asking my spouse to look at their opposite-sex friendships while I have not examined my own? 
  • What about this relationship makes me uncomfortable?
  • Does my spouse share a past romantic relationship with this friend?
  • Does this remind me of something from my past relationships?
  • Do I know my spouse’s friend? Are they doing things for the friend that they won’t do at home?

Relational Questions:

  • What is the state of my marriage? Is it healthy? Do we laugh together? Play together? How well do we communicate? Handle conflict? How is our intimate life? 
  • Are we nurturing our marital relationship?
  • Have we talked about boundaries? Does my spouse include me in the friendship? 
  • Am I invited to go hang out together with the friend? 
  • Are we in the “Danger Zone?”

Once you have considered the above questions, find the right time and place to begin the conversation with your spouse. 

  • Use “I statements” (Speak from your own point of view—“I feel, I need, I think…”)
  • Be respectful 
  • Ask questions of your spouse
  • Actively listen to them
  • Being aware prevents you from approaching a slippery slope

Having this conversation is meant to create and establish relational boundaries that you both can agree on as well as be held accountable. Additionally, you should be open about how you feel about it when your spouse has opposite-sex friends, but do so in a controlled and positive way. Avoid opening an accusatory conversation because you’re feeling hurt or slighted. Choose to respond instead of react. Seek to understand your spouse and the situation first, then open the conversation as a way to strengthen your marriage. 

Being aware of the danger zone, paying attention to warning signs and being respectful of your spouse’s perspective will enable you both to be on the same page and do what is best for your relationship. This does not mean that you and your spouse can never have opposite-sex friends. No matter the difficulty, talking and being open about boundaries is necessary to build a strong, lasting relationship.

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

As a young girl, I grew up in a neighborhood that was primarily boys. So, I played football, kickball, basketball and baseball with the guys. Throughout high school and college, I always felt comfortable around guys. They were like big brothers to me. I remember one incident when I was going on a date in college. The guy came and picked me up from my dorm. As we were driving off-campus, my “brothers” surrounded the car and made sure that my date knew that I was to return to campus in the same condition that I left it. I remember feeling cared for and protected by their actions. As a result, I continued to foster and build these friendships until I met my husband. 

I saw nothing wrong with having opposite-sex friendships after marriage because to me they were purely platonic. However, my husband had concerns. After a discussion with him, I took a closer look at my past interactions with my opposite-sex friends—even the ones that I felt were like “brothers” to me.

Questions to Ask

I had to ask myself some questions about the state of these relationships and how they impacted my marriage. I found questions from Dr. Todd Linaman, therapist and executive coach, that I chose to ask myself.

  • Is my spouse aware of the closeness of this relationship?
  • Do I compare my spouse to my opposite-sex friend?
  • Has my spouse expressed concern about this friendship?
  • Have I ever ignored or resisted my spouse’s request to modify or end this relationship?
  • Is there a past romantic relationship or do you fantasize about a romantic relationship with your friend?
  • Is there any attraction (sexual/physical) to my opposite-sex friend?
  • Would I feel uncomfortable if my spouse had a similarly close friendship with someone of the opposite sex?

If the answer is yes or even maybe, I need to reevaluate my friendships by:

  1. Setting Appropriate Boundaries. I recognized that spending time with, sharing experiences, disclosing thoughts and feelings are ways to build intimacy. Prior to marriage, I may have shared my time and my experiences, as well as my thoughts and feelings, with my opposite-sex friends. Now, I realize that sharing like that should be primarily with my spouse. 
  1. Being Open To How Your Spouse Sees Things. It’s important to be open to your spouse’s concerns. Yes, this has been a long-term friendship. However, you may be blinded to romantic overtures that your spouse sees. Take a moment and consider your spouse’s viewpoint.  Even if you don’t agree with it, you should respect their feelings. Remember, they only want what is best for you and your relationship. 
  1. Building A “Friendship” With My Spouse. It may be sad to lose a long-standing relationship. However, making and creating time to build a friendship with your spouse can help fill the void. Explore your hometown for adventure and experiences. Seek out new interests together. Share thoughts, goals, and dreams with your spouse.

At the beginning of our marriage, our friend groups changed. I have a great deal of respect for my husband because he never demanded that I give up my friendships. He only wanted me to do what was in the best interest of our marriage. I made some intentional choices when it came to opposite-sex friendships after marriage. Looking back, I would say I have no regrets.

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

I grew up in a time when disagreements with friends were a harmless and fun part of the landscape:

McDonald’s vs. Burger King

Classic Coke vs. New Coke

Grunge vs. 80s Hair Bands

Backstreet Boys vs. NSYNC

Britney vs. Christina

Alabama vs. Auburn

Even now, the boisterous disagreement between the Chick-Fil-A sandwich vs. Popeye’s spicy sandwich was fodder for social media. It was funny seeing videos by fans of both sides extolling the virtues of their favorite sandwich. I, too, became a part of the conversation as I was incredulous that a co-worker had never eaten Popeye’s Chicken. “Never eaten’ Popeye’s?!” 

For many of us, we have been able to have these fun yet inconsequential disagreements or debates with our friends. Now, our disagreements have more weight and can result in a change in our relationship with our friends. We are no longer disagreeing about boy bands and colas, but about politics, climate change, parenting styles, and how we deal with COVID-19.

As a result, those relationships that have sustained and supported us throughout our lives are being tested due to our differences of opinion and differences in actions & reactions.

How do we keep disagreements from derailing our friendships?

1. Take a step back to reassess the relationship.

I take my role as a “friend” seriously. Consequently, I often see my friends as extensions of my family. In this phase of my life and in the midst of COVID-19, I have chosen to reevaluate, realign, and prioritize the friendships that mean the most to me.  

In order to do that, I asked myself the following questions:

  • Can we as friends agree to disagree without being disagreeable?
  • Is this a mutual relationship or is it one-sided?
  • Is this friendship feeding me or draining me?
  • What is the depth of this friendship?
  • What kind of friend am I?
  • Was I overbearing? Did I overshare?

2. Accept that they have different experiences and opinions.

In order to maintain friendships, I realized that I can’t control the actions, thoughts, and opinions of my friends. I can only control my actions, thoughts, and reactions. As a result, I take pride in the fact that I have many friends who are different from me.  They are older and younger than I am. Some have children; others do not. We are from different cultures and different ethnicities. The differences that we have make me a more well-rounded person because I learn from my friends’ diverse experiences and backgrounds.

For many of us, our friends are our backbones and support systems.  It can be painful to recognize that you are not on the same page regarding an important issue, but it doesn’t have to end a friendship. I love the way St. Francis of Assisi put it, “Seek to Understand rather than to be Understood.” On the other hand, “Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future.”

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, I headed out early one morning to walk. About 20 minutes into my journey, I looked up and WOW! The stars were bright and the sky was clear, something I had not seen in days due to lots of rain. It made me smile.

Let’s be honest. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by all the hard, hard stuff going on. COVID-19 is for sure wreaking its havoc on our nation and the world. It’s like we are at war. News about our economy, job loss, financial devastation, exhausted healthcare workers, not enough supplies, friends and family members testing positive for the virus – sometimes it feels like more than any of us can bear and we wonder, when will it go away? 

When I looked up though, I was reminded that even in the midst of what truly is a terrible moment in time where we all have experienced loss, it might be super helpful for me to actually consider all the things I can be grateful for. 

It probably sounds crazy, but just seeing the stars and knowing a sunny day was in store lifted my spirits. Here are a few more things I can think of: 

  • Being able to see a beautiful sunrise
  • Working with a team of people who are willing to charge forward even in the midst of challenges
  • My health
  • Family that checks in
  • Laughter
  • Being able to get my thoughts out of my head and on paper
  • Friendships
  • Utilizing my skills to help people navigate through this storm
  • A roof over my head and food to eat
  • The opportunity to help those who are on the frontlines of this battle
  • Feeling all the feelings as I watch businesses donate much-needed personal protective equipment, restaurants providing food to those in need, cafeteria workers working long hours to prepare food that school bus drivers will deliver to families on their route, people stepping up to care for the children of healthcare workers so they can go to work, families willing to live apart in order for one of their members to be on the frontlines, amazing artists sharing their talents either through teaching or providing an hour of entertainment.
  • No scheduled activities to keep families from eating meals together
  • The signs of new life outside which give me hope for the future
  • People all over the nation sitting down at sewing machines to make masks
  • It’s not winter so we can at least get outside or at the very least open windows and breathe fresh air
  • The symphony of birds singing
  • Neighborhoods figuring out creative things to do to help parents and children hold it together – bear hunts, crazy family pictures, scavenger hunts, and I Spy to name a few 
  • My dog, who has been my companion on all my walks

After making this list and shedding a few tears, it was very clear to me that even in the midst of these heartbreaking moments, I have a lot I can be thankful for. 

Getting in and staying in a mindset of gratitude is not always easy during the difficult moments in our lives, but shifting our focus to the things we can be grateful for is good for our mental health and good for the soul.

What do you have to be thankful for today?

“Every day that passes, I have more respect for you working mamas. I mean, I already had respect… but lawdy. Doing this and then waking up to go work a job for 8 hours and then come home to take care of baby and do it all over again… you guys are heroes. And with more than one kid, Tam! I love you and am in awe of how you do it all.”

I received this text on a random Thursday from my best friend Steph, a new mom on an extended maternity leave. Over the past couple months the texts between us have shifted to a flurry of questions about all things baby. But this text wasn’t unusual or out of the ordinary, in fact, it is pretty normal for us. Because, as cheesy as it sounds, our friendship is rooted in a mutual love and respect for one another, and we openly encourage and appreciate each other as often as we can. 

Steph and I have been best friends for 19 years. (The average friendship only lasts 7 years, according to a 2009 Dutch study.) We’ve been through the angsty high school days, the “wild” college parties, toxic boyfriends, first jobs, devastating funerals, marrying the loves of our lives, unexpected job losses and the great transition into motherhood. In other words, we’ve had our share of ups and downs. Throughout it all, our friendship has been to the brink of extinction and back. So what’s made it last this long and allowed us both to thrive as individuals?

In high school, before texting was really even a thing, we used to keep a notebook that we’d trade between each other, writing our deepest thoughts and secrets, spilling our hopes and fears and questions about life and love. We’d reply to each other with encouragement or advice, and then proceed to talk about our own problems again and again. It’s no wonder that the sentiment continued for years and years. Our friendship started off with honest and open vulnerability from the second we met.

One summer in college, we were both experiencing heart-wrenching breakups. Together, we channeled our despair into hope by creating a collage of encouragement. We scribbled quotes, phrases and advice we wished we could tell ourselves before things went so wrong. Like, “Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.” We worked together piecing scraps of magazines photos and letters onto a black mounting board that I had leftover from an art project. When it was all done, the closeness we felt experiencing mutual heartbreak but also mutual empowerment that we would be okay bonded us together even more.  

As life threatened to get in the way of our friendship by bringing jobs, husbands and kids, we made a decision to be intentional about keeping our communication alive. In fact, we text each other almost every day. Sometimes we need an outlet to vent our frustrations, sometimes we need advice and sometimes we need to share the embarrassing thing that just happened to us. The level of trust between us is off the charts. We have and will always allow each other to be our true, authentic selves with no judgment. 

The strong foundation we built in the beginning has allowed us to grow and change as individuals while still maintaining our relationship. Over the years, we’ve actually brought out the best in one another. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not perfect. We’ve had arguments and said or done hurtful things to each other, but really, what relationship doesn’t go through rough patches? We’ve apologized, forgiven and grown from those obstacles. We’ve become each other’s biggest fan, confident and “person.”  

“When the character of a man is not clear to you, look at his friends.” This Japanese proverb rings so true. Your friends shape who you are. They have tremendous influence over the person you are becoming. So, want to thrive in life? Build up your friendships that are positive, authentic and inspiring. Surround yourself with people who pour love, time, energy, and acceptance into you. And do the same for them. 

We’ve all heard someone’s “value” calculated as their Net Worth, but what about cultivating the value of your Network? I’m talking about your true friends, accountability partners, and mentors. People that know your goals and will help you achieve them.

Those relationships don’t happen by accident. We have to be open to them. We have to be intentional. We have to invest. Often, when I need those kinds of people in my life the most, my instinct is to go into hiding. I run the opposite way. I find ways to build taller fences, not longer tables.

  • This isn’t where I point out that according to recent research, Americans report being more lonely than ever- but they do.
  • This isn’t where I point out that social media Friends, Followers, Shares, Likes, and Upvotes aren’t the true measure of your Social Capital- but they aren’t.
  • I’m not even going to say that old fashioned, healthy, Rugged American Individualism has often changed us into unhealthy, Radical American Individualists- but it has.
  • I’m just going to quote something my father drilled into me: “Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future.” He was onto something.

It’s easy to surround yourself with people that always agree with you or always take your side. I get it. I do it. That can feel good. It also feels good to have people in your life that you can have fun with and be yourself. But who in your life is helping you be the best version of yourself?

Who is truly helping you be the best spouse or partner, the best parent, the best person that you can be? Who in your life has permission and is willing to confront you and say the hard things? (You know, those things that sting a day or two, but you know they’re true.)

Community, true Social Capital is more important than ever:

  • -I never once got a job solely based on an application. It always involved someone I knew and built a connection with before I even knew a new job was even a possibility.
  • My wife taught me the value of finding married couples deeper into the season of life we were in or heading toward and risking getting real with them.
  • The best thing we did as parents was to connect with other parents for coffee or dessert just to talk about parenting stuff- especially parents with kids heading out of the stages that our kids were heading into.
  • I’ve never regretted cultivating relationships- real friendships- with a couple of guys that I could be honest and transparent with, knowing that in return they would ask me the tough questions about the kind of husband, father, and man I am.

These kinds of people and couples and parents can be difficult to find. Maybe the best way to find them is to first work at being that kind of person for other people.

I could not begin to tell you my Net Worth. It probably isn’t much. I’m positive it isn’t much. My Network though- priceless. Where are you investing?

The YMCAs and Planet Fitnesses in town and all the other gyms are packed full this week with all those that made New Year’s resolutions to lose some pounds, to better their physiques, and to get more healthy. Did you make any New Year’s resolutions? Did you set some goals for 2020? I hope they weren’t all about diet and exercise! Did you make some Relationship Resolutions for 2020?

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In his book, The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction, Justin Earley shares this quote by Mortimer J. Adler: 

“Without communication, there can be no community. … That is why conversation, discussion, or talk is the most important form of speaking and listening.”

FRIENDSHIP MATTERS

In recent years, we are having fewer and fewer sit-down, face-to-face conversations. Those things seem to have been replaced by texting, emojis, messaging on Facebook and emails. All these things may have short-circuited our ability to know each other deeply.

News stories abound about the increase in anxiety and depression for all ages, we have seen the suicide rate triple for teens, and surveys indicate we as a culture are lonelier than we have ever been. In light of that, perhaps the new year should be designated as a year of intentional conversation with others.

“Everything in the universe has its roots in friendship,” says Earley. “That means that longing to be in right relationship with other people and things is at the heart of every molecule in existence – and most powerfully in our own hearts.”

Earley explains that conversation exposes us in two ways: face-to-face conversation brings risks and truth-telling happens.

HOW WE COMMUNICATE IMPACTS EVERYONE

Massachusetts Institute of Technology psychologist and author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle believes that replacing face-to-face communication with technology is depleting people’s capacity for empathy toward others. Research has shown that the way people are currently seeking to communicate through devices has threatened true friendship. Instead of things happening in real time right in front of us, people are planning and curating the versions of themselves that they want to bring to the discussion. 

Removing tone of voice, facial expression and body language from communication leaves the conversation lacking in so many ways. How can we bring back real, honest conversation? It’s not as hard as you might think.

  • Make an effort to remove devices from the dinner table whether you are at home or at a restaurant. 
  • Create space for regular conversation and fellowship with family and friends. Instead of the well-meaning, “Let’s get together soon!” pull up your calendar and set a date to get together to catch up on life. 
  • For the sake of your emotional health, there should be a couple of people you connect with on a regular basis. These would be the people Earley is describing with whom risky conversations take place, truth-telling occurs and perfection is not expected.
  • When it comes to modeling the art of conversation with your children, create tech-free zones/times in your home where your family can come together for game night or other activities that invite the opportunity for conversations to occur. 

CONVERSATION STARTERS

If you feel like you aren’t great at getting conversations going, here are a few questions to get you started:

  • What is something that is popular now that totally annoys you and why?
  • What is the best/worst thing about your work/school?
  • If you had intro music, what song would it be and why?
  • Where is the most beautiful place you have ever been?
  • If you had to change your name, what would it be and why?
  • How should success be measured, and by that measurement, who is the most successful person you know?
  • If you could learn the answer to one question about your future, what would the question be?
  • What was the best period of your life so far? What do you think will be the best period of your entire life?

People of all ages are actually dying from the lack of community that currently exists in our culture, but that trend does not have to continue. Every person can be intentional about having regular meaningful conversations with others. Imagine how different our culture could be if we all committed to working on this.

This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on December 28, 2019.

You don’t give in to peer pressure, right? That was so Middle School! Surprisingly, adult you is still rather impressionable. Your chances of divorce just went up!

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Shasta Nelson has spent more than a decade studying loneliness and friendships. Nelson is a healthy relationship expert and author of Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness and Friendships Don’t Just Happen! The Guide to Creating a Meaningful Circle of Girlfriends. She is currently working on her next book, “The Business of Friendship: Making the Most of the Relationships Where We Spend Most of Our Time,” to be published by HarperCollins Leadership.

Nelson surveyed people to find out how fulfilling their friendships felt from one to 10, with 10 being the most meaningful satisfaction. About 60-70 percent respondents rated their relationships five or below.

Nelson realized that while people might be in friend relationships or marriage relationships, there was a gap between the kind of relationships people want to have and the kind they actually have. In fact, 80 percent of the complaints about friendships centered around wanting more and deeper connection. She found that people know more people than ever before and are supposedly more connected, yet they are lonelier than ever.

A 2018 CIGNA study of 20,000 people found that nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone. Additionally, 1 in 4 rarely or never feels as though people really understand them, and 2 in 5 Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful.

According to Nelson, modern day loneliness is not because we need to interact more with people; It is due to lack of intimacy. Frientimacy is a relationship where both people feel seen in a safe and satisfying way. When people say they are lonely, Nelson doesn’t believe that answer is to go out and make more friends, but to deepen current relationships.

“I ask people this question: ‘Do you feel as loved and supported as you need at this point in your life?’” Nelson says. “If the answer is yes, that’s fabulous, but often the answer is no. When that is the case, I encourage them to consider who in their life they would want to build a more meaningful or closer relationship with and then make a list. Start prioritizing those relationships. 

“Some people say they have no names to put on their list. For these folks, their journey right now is to get out and meet people who have the potential to be future friends. There are a couple of ways you can do this. Going to places you already frequent like school, work, faith-based or civic organizations – proximity and geography matters. Then be intentional about getting to know them better. The second way is to reach out to people you know and ask them if there are people they think you should know. Take advantage of opportunities for introductions to meet new people at their party, book club, discussion group, etc.” 

Nelson says the more insane your life is, the more you need meaningful friendships. 

“Often when I am speaking to moms’ groups, I ask them to write what they remember about their mom and her friends,” Nelson says. “A good 70 percent of women have a hard time completing that assignment. I suspect it happens partly because so many moms try to nurture their friendships at a time that doesn’t inconvenience their kids. However, 30 years down the road, your daughters can’t tell me who your friends are. Friendships need to be modeled. Don’t downplay that part of your life. Deep, meaningful friendships make us better.”

Once you have identified people on your list, Nelson says to then practice the three things that are the basis of every healthy relationship: positivity, consistency and vulnerability, also known as “the frientimacy triangle.” 

  1. Positivity is about feeling supported, kindness, acts of service, affirmation – all the things that make us feel good. 
  2. Consistency is the hours logged, the history built, interactions and knowing there is consistent behavior in the relationship. This is where trust occurs. 
  3. Vulnerabilit is where we share, reveal, let people beyond the formal living room, talk about what is going well and not so well, history, dreams, and where you feel safe to ask for what you need.

When we have high levels of each part of the “frientimacy triangle,” we feel seen, safe and satisfied, which is what people want and need. We then have the ability to take existing relationships to a completely different level.

Our bodies are craving this and are literally dying without connections. World-renowned physician Dean Ornish states, “I am not aware of any other factor in medicine (than intimacy and love) – not diet, not smoking, not exercising, not stress, not genetics, not drugs, not surgery – that has a greater impact on our quality of life, incidence of illness and premature death from all causes.” 

According to Nelson, loneliness is as damaging to our bodies as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, the equivalent of being a lifelong alcoholic, more harmful than not exercising, and twice as harmful as obesity.

“How you answer the question, ‘How loved and supported do you feel?’ will tell us more about your health 15-20 years down the road than any other factor,” she says.

If your relationships aren’t where you want them to be, Nelson encourages you to take action and do something different. Not only do we have the opportunity to make our own lives richer, we can enrich others’ lives with our positivity, consistency and vulnerability.

This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on April 7, 2019.